Economic development is a 'team sport'
The Right Place collaborates with many businesses and organizations to seed region’s growth.
Amazon, Switch, Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Van Andel Institute and thousands of other businesses and organizations all have one thing in common: They have been assisted in some way by The Right Place.
Though the Grand Rapids-based economic development organization is most known for its business development, it provides a span of services that includes talent attraction and more.
“When we announce a project, all you see is the tip of the iceberg,” said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place. “But nobody knows what went on under the water before that.”
All the services work together in a complex puzzle because with a good base of successful businesses comes restaurants and retail and an overall strong economy.
“The ripple effect of a good economic development strategy really goes through the whole region,” said Klohs, who has her hand in development throughout the area as a board member of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority and the Ford Airport Authority.
The Right Place’s start
The Right Place started during the 1980s when the unemployment rate in Michigan was over 17%.
There was no local economic development organization at the time, meaning companies that wanted to expand or move to the area had to figure it out on their own. This inhibited companies from investing in West Michigan, therefore keeping Grand Rapids from becoming the community it could be.
Business leaders knew if the community wasn’t successful, their companies would have trouble attracting talent, Klohs said.
A group of 13 CEOs, led by Jay Van Andel, joined forces to solve the issue, and after taking some outside professional advice, The Right Place was born.
Klohs said The Right Place was one of the first to be a “public-private partnership,” getting 80% of its funding from private sources, 10% from the public and 10% from foundations. Today, the private funding comes from more than 300 “investors” — corporations, builders, contractors, law firms, CPA firms, insurance companies and more.
“The commitment the community has made to economic development in time and treasure has been pretty remarkable and steady,” Klohs said.
Klohs said when she explains the concept outside of the U.S., she often gets questions about why a company like Steelcase would give The Right Place money to support other businesses.
“And the answer is because it creates jobs and opportunities, and that is good for everybody,” Klohs said.
Klohs said about 80% of the organization’s business development services are retention, followed by expansion and then attraction, all free of charge to those served.
Therese Thill, vice president of business development for The Right Place, said the organization regularly has retention meetings with companies that sell products within West Michigan and circle dollars back into the local economy.
“Those business retention visits are where we really have an opportunity to understand the company's needs and challenges and opportunities,” she said.
Thill’s staff does about 400 retention meetings per year with local companies and logs about 1,400 assists.
Thill said The Right Place is on track to exceed the three-year strategic plan’s goal of 1,000 companies per year served and 5,000 assists.
“That's really what we do first and foremost, is make sure everybody that is here gets taken care of,” Klohs said.
When working with companies interested in expanding in or moving to West Michigan, The Right Place is “the convener of all the resources” there are to offer, Klohs said.
“We figure out what the company needs and then we surround them with the resources,” she said.
Companies may request any variety of resources to ensure a move or expansion happens: talent development, infrastructure buildouts, incentives. Whatever is needed, Klohs said The Right Place does what it can.
“Our job is to really understand the resources that exist. And if we don't know them, we will figure out who they are,” Klohs said.
Klohs said she connected two engineering schools late last month with a German company she brought here 30 years ago.
She just spoke with another client who used to own a “big company” in West Michigan and now owns a venture capital fund. He’s based in Chicago and does most of his business on the West Coast, and he needs manufacturing services that aren’t available there. He is going to visit The Right Place with a piece he needs made, and staff will connect him with companies that might be able to help.
The Right Place generally works with larger, established companies, Thill said. But staff will connect any company that seeks help with the proper resources, even if it means forwarding to the Small Business Development Center or another more appropriate organization.
There are projects in the pipeline all the time that staff are working to complete, and it often takes a couple of years of working with companies before it pays off, she said. And all parties have to deal with changes in the economy and anything else along the way. In the meantime, it takes a “delicate balance” of knowing when to push and when to not.
“It is a marathon,” she said. “It can take a long time to walk it through all the paces.”
And each project is so different that the job requires flexibility. Every company has a different driver.
One company’s main question was how many languages are spoken in West Michigan. About 10 years ago when the company moved here, there were more than 40 languages spoken in the area. Now, there are more than 100, Klohs said.
Aligning with its strategic plan, Klohs said the organization regularly travels around the country and the world visiting trade shows and with companies interested in moving to the U.S.
That international business attraction strategy goes back to the organization’s very first business plan, she said.
Klohs said there are more than 130 foreign companies in West Michigan, almost 50 of those from Germany.
“If you do that business, you have to be really thoughtful about it,” she said. “You have to be there consistently or never go. You have to be in it for the long haul.”
There’s a Swedish company in Grand Rapids that Klohs said she followed for five years before landing a deal.
Klohs said The Right Place was one of the first to add a staff researcher to its team.
There’s now a research team that publishes business information and statistics online, which also is used to inform much of the organization’s work.
“We do it not just for us to help a customer, but we do it for customers out there who need information to make better decisions,” Klohs said.
The organization shares the economic knowledge it gains through its work and research with community leaders who can drive business-motivated solutions. The Right Place hosts an investor breakfast every four months. The first one this year was on the future of the auto industry and mobility. The one in November will focus on talent.
Every two years, the organization hosts a conference on what’s new with technology and subjects like robotics and cybersecurity.
The Manufacturers Council, convened 30 years ago as part of Klohs’ move toward a more robust retention program, includes companies that share best practices with each other.
“We just try to always be at the leading edge of what's out there and then put it into the region,” Klohs said.
Hello West Michigan has been busy these days, as the branch of The Right Place that works on talent attraction. It’s part of the larger talent department that also focuses on K-12 through college education and workforce development, led by Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives.
Hello West Michigan works with people considering a move to West Michigan or who have recently moved, whether it’s their first time living in the area or they have lived in Grand Rapids before.
The organization works with people directly and also hosts a number of events. It hosted West Michigan Intern Connect earlier this summer. The day before each Thanksgiving, the organization hosts ReThink West Michigan, an event to share information about jobs with people home for the holiday, in hopes they will move back to the area.
Brown said it’s about “planting a seed,” so even if the workers move away, they know there are opportunities if they move back.
“There are so many other opportunities right here in their backyard,” she said.
Brown’s department also makes sure that companies are connected to talent needed and are aware of what resources are available. Companies with similar talent needs can get funding for classes, for example.
“They'll never know that stuff if they're not either being told or asked or pulled into conversations,” Brown said.
When a company expands, it needs to think about the workers it needs to take on that extra work, she said. “Making sure that they're looking at that talent as a strategy just as much as they're looking at their growth expansion.”
As someone who has been at The Right Place for 3½ years, Brown said she understands the public largely is unaware of the complexities of what happens at the organization.
“I know people in the community don't realize the amount of work and the amount of collaborations and connections that flow,” she said.
Klohs said it’s important to remember economic development is a “team sport.” In order to make deals happen, The Right Place partners with many agencies and organizations, such as West Michigan Works!, utility companies, government offices and more.
Though the organization has embraced technology, Klohs said the business still is about making human connections.
“This is still an intensely personal business,” she said.